A bird by any other name
Guest blogger: Toni Risson, co-curator of the Meet me at the Paragon exhibition
Naming a café was a big deal for Greek proprietors. Many aligned themselves with their new homeland, choosing the Empire, Regal, Royal, Australia or Allies Café. Such names said, “We’re Aussies” despite the accent that greeted customers as they walked through the door. Similarly, ABC Café is thought to have stood for All British Café.
From as early as the 1910s, some proprietors ‘hitched their wagon’ to the growing love of Hollywood and all things pertaining to the silver screen. This inspired names like the Niagara Café, the Golden Gate, California, Monterey, Broadway and Hollywood Cafés. Also part of this American fantasy were the bevelled mirrors, chrome soda fountains and American-style booths that characterised classic Greek café style.
Greek names were relatively rare, although Marathon Oyster Saloon and Olympia Milk Bar were not unknown, and Paragon Café was common. The word paragon means model of excellence, and this articulated the Greek proprietor’s goal – to serve the best food, produced under the most hygienic conditions, using the latest technologies. With its polished maple panelling and leadlight back bar, the Paragon Café that Londy Bros built in Dalby in 1932 embodied the vision of many Greek migrants. ‘Paragon’ has become almost synonymous with the Greek café.
Bridge Cafés were so named because they were by the town bridge, Canberra Café was applied to shops that opened in 1927, the same year as Parliament House, and White Rose, Busy Bee and Blue Bird Cafés were symbols of hope and happiness. Blue Bird Café was a particularly popular name during the war years when blue birds featured in song lyrics. Somewhere Over the Rainbow (1939) and The White Cliffs of Dover (1941) looked forward to the bright future migrants had long imagined.
So what to call the State Library’s impending exhibition about Greek cafés? This task was met with deliberation equal to that of the Greek proprietor choosing a name for his shop. MEALS AT ALL HOURS was a likely contender because this signage was common on Greek cafés. Fish ‘n’ Chips and Banana Splits had a nice ring to it. And ‘birds’ and ‘bees’ offered potential. In the end, like the motto that accompanies Orphan Rock as the emblem of Katoomba’s Paragon Café, one name ‘stood alone’. Meet Me at the Paragon, of course. The exhibition run from 27 September 2019 until 15 March 2020 at the State Library. Make a date to meet us there.
Toni Risson - Curator of Meet Me at the Paragon, State Library of Queensland